#41 ~ The Monsters of Templeton

October 16, 2007 at 12:49 am | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Barnes & Noble, Books, Childhood Memories, Culture, Exercise, First Look Book Club, Free, Gothic Fiction, LIfe, Margaret Mitchell, My Life with Books, Parenting Dilemmas, Pre-Release Sneak Peak, Reading, Religion, Secrets and Lies, The Monsters of Templeton | 13 Comments
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The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

There is something spectacular about a book whose first line lures you into its spell like a siphon and never lets you go. In my 36 years of reading, there has only been two books whose first lines I’ve memorized and cannot forget:

“Call me Ishmael.” ~ Moby Dick (who hasn’t had that beaten into their skulls with an ice pick?)

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” ~ Gone with the Wind

With that line, I fell in love with Scarlett and couldn’t wait to find out just what it was about her that had men panting like exercised puppies. There was no way I could not read the book after just that first sentence – and I never thought to. With the noted exception of Moby Dick, I’ve found that a compelling first sentence isn’t a fluke. It’s a sign of a gifted author and a book worthy of reading.

The fact of the matter is that most books I’ve read and even those I’ve enjoyed immensely begin forgettably. This is the 41st book I’ve read this year and prior to picking up this book, not a single first sentence has struck me this year – and I’ve read some great novels. So, when I read, re-read, and then could not stop thinking about:

“The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”

I knew that this would be a book I would love. I finished this book as satisfied as I was with the first sentence. This is a novel that I will keep forever and re-read several times.

The Monsters of Templeton is the story of Willie Sunshine Upton, a young graduate student who unexpectedly returns to her ancestral home “steeped in disgrace” just as her home town is overcome with media upon the discovery of an as-of-yet undiscovered mammalian creature. The existence – or actually previous existence – of the monster gives this novel a Gothic feel. This along with the mystery of Willie’s famous family prove to work together well.

Willie returned to her mother, Vi, in hopes of finding a safe place to lick her wounds before facing the responsibilities and consequences of the choices she’d recently made. Vi, a single mother and former hippy, refuses to let her daughter settle, even if it is into shame. As a result of her recent radical religious conversion, Vi feels the need to come clean to Willie. She tells her that she is not the product of an orgy-istic time in San Francisco. In fact, Willie’s father is alive and well in Templeton. He never knew of her existence. When Willie asks who he is, Vi refuses to tell her. She provides only a single clue: he, just like Willie and Vi, is related to Marmaduke Temple, the father of Templeton. It was as if Vi through down the gauntlet. Willie, no matter how down her current circumstances have made her, cannot sit still having this mystery hanging around her. Her archaeological dig through her family’s past proves to be an enchanting and humorous adventure.

I don’t want to give away many details in this review. I enjoyed uncovering things along the way with Willie. I will say (that just about everything else recently in my life) that there was a strong connection for me between Vi and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Both characters hold an important truth that could very easily be given to the young woman in need: Willie needs to know who her father is and Dorothy needs to know how to get back to Kansas. If this information was simply handed over, what would have happened? Neither Willie nor Dorothy would never grasped or appreciated the importance of family in their souls. In that way, what both characters needed was the discovery as much as the truth. Given that Glinda is traditionally played by the same actress as Auntie Em, it seems that teaching a child to learn for herself is the mark of the best mother/mother figure.

The Monsters of Templeton is mainly narrated by Willie, but there are also sections narrated by The Running Buds, Templeton’s jogging protectors, and several of Willie’s ancestors. I found myself drawn into the genealogical research myself. The pictures, portraits, and family trees along the way also made me feel included. Just as with Special Topics in Calamity Physics, they enhance the experience and do not feel out of place.

One of the best things about reading this book was the humor. There were several times I found myself chuckling out loud while I was reading. I don’t do that very often. It was this humor that endeared the book and its characters to me. Perhaps it was because I am of a similar age to Willie’s character that I found the sarcasm and smack talk genuine. It is such a pleasure to read a book that is both interesting and fun.

** Thank you Barnes and Noble for providing me with an Advance Reading Copy of this book. Your First Look Book Club is an incredible opportunity. **

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To buy this novel, click here.

Ray of Light

September 24, 2007 at 9:42 pm | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Guiding Light, Guilty Pleasure, Historical Fiction, Jonathan's Story, LIfe, My Life with Books, Reading, Reva | Leave a comment
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Today I’ve been catching up on my Guiding Light episodes so that I don’t get hit broadsided while reading Jonathan’s Story.  It was while listening to Marina whining about loving Cyrus but being unable to stop being the straight-laced Cooper that she is that I had a mini-personal revelation.  I love Reva for the same reasons I love Scarlett O’Hara and Elizabeth Winthrop – they move mountains to be the person they want to be.  Sure, Reva doesn’t have quite the strict societal norms with which Scarlett and Elizabeth had to contend, but that doesn’t make her any less her own woman.  I like Marina Cooper and I love Melanie Wilkes, but they are not the reasons why I read or listen to soap operas.  I want to experience all that it out there in this world.  I’m sorry, but you just can’t do that through people who are as thoroughly kind and self-deprecating.

What does this say about me?  Well, I guess it says that I define “making the most out of life” as experiencing all (well, most) of what this world has to offer.  I do not find that through reading the lives of saints (either secular or otherwise).  Good people are the backbone of this world. There’s no doubt about it.  However, the individuals who push and question and scandalize that have a greater impact on where society heads.  I suffer from too much guilt and anxiety to do as I damn well please and to hell with everyone else.  As I get older this is less problematic, but I don’t see myself as a woman who will change the world.  Instead, I will champion those women and men (let’s not forget them) who have done what I might have liked to do by reading about their lives and reporting to my readers here.

I hope this doesn’t make me sort of voyeur or a purveyor of personality pornography…  Strike that.  So what if it is?  Reva, Scarlett, or Elizabeth wouldn’t feel guilty about it – at least not for long.

#33 ~ Special Topics in Calamity Physics

August 8, 2007 at 3:27 am | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Brain Food for Thought, Childhood Memories, Inspiration, LIfe, Marisha Pessl, Memoir, My Life with Books, Reading, Secrets and Lies | 2 Comments
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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Just 75 pages into Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I knew that I was going to enjoy it. When what I was reading spoke to me personally in conjunction with an outside conversation I had just moments before reading it, I knew that I was reading something spooky-spectacular. Now that I’ve completed this novel, I can say that I’ve never read anything quite like it. It is as fabulous in its story as it is original in its style and form. I hope to keep my mind long enough to see how this book is regarded by future generations.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the story of Blue van Meer, the only child of an amazingly intellectual college professor named Gareth. She lost her mother at the age of five in a terrible car accident. From that time forward, the van Meer’s traveled from one small college town to the next ~ usually once per semester. The main story begins just before Blue’s senior year of high school. As a special “treat,” her dad takes a year-long teaching position in a small North Carolina town with an excellent prep school which will help Blue get into Harvard. Truth be told, Blue’s intelligence matches her father’s. There’s little doubt that Harvard would pass her up.

Given Blue’s nomadic childhood, she developed a strong bond with her father ~ in equal parts because he was her only constant and because she tended to keep to herself. That all changed at St. Gallway. Through a fluke encounter at the local grocery store, she catches the eye of Hannah Schnieder, a beautiful woman who happens to be the film teacher.

Hannah has mentored a group of five classmates called the “Bluebloods” by the rest of the class. Upon Hannah’s insistence, Blue is reluctantly included in their weekly Sunday dinners at Hannah’s house. After a couple of months, she’s even seen as one of them. In one form or another, they all get embroiled in figuring out Hannah’s mysterious life away from them. When Hannah is discovered dead, Blue’s newfound life is destroyed along with it. Worse still, while the “Bluebloods” are nearly violent in blaming Blue for Hannah’s death, no one else will believe that her was anything other than a suicide. Blue is forced to go it alone to detangle Hannah and why she was so mysteriously attached to her.

This book is written in first person by Blue as a memoir of her childhood. Pessl uses the experiences of this interesting father/daughter relationship to construct this novel. It is full of references and hand-drawn reproductions of pictures used to illustrate her points. One might think that references would bog down a novel written as a memoir, but they were nothing short of a delight. Blue never used a quotation unnecessarily. Although I never bothered to check to see how fictitious (or not) they were, this novel would not have worked without them.

I would have to say one of the most amazing things about the construction of this novel is the Table of Contents. It is created in the form of a syllabus from one of Gareth’s courses. Each chapter title is that of a well known novel or story. Each one (for at least those that I was familiar with) was absolutely perfect for that chapter. I could not believe how ingenious and creative that little touch is. How could I not buy a book with a chapter entitled, “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man?” For that matter, how could I not adore a character who makes up a Ulysses study group to get out of her house and out with her mentor? There were times that the Table of Contents alone made me happy to be alive as a literate human being.

There is still some summer left. Do yourself a huge favor. Buy this book.  I swear you’ll want to keep it. Take a long weekend (Labor Day if you must), sit back, crack open this book and be delighted. You may find yourself reading way into the wee hours of the night without being exhausted the next day.

Yes, my friends, it’s that refreshing.

Life Meets Book in Perfect Harmony

August 4, 2007 at 5:37 pm | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Brain Food for Thought, Culture, Inspiration, LIfe, My Life with Books, Reading, Religion | 2 Comments

Last evening, I spent some time talking with one of my co-workers from India.  We began talking about language and how it is heard and perceived by native speakers versus those who have learned it later in life.  I have a lot of fun talking with S.  He is intelligent and oh, so very easy to tease.  As the conversation moved along, we began talking about the Hindu religion.  He explained the different persons making up the Hindu godhead and there were many obvious parallels to Catholicism specifically.  The way he was speaking reminded me so clearly of the way Beverly Donofrio discussed her spirituality in Looking for Mary Or, the Blessed Mother and Me.  It made me feel good.

Our conversation was especially meaningful to me when he talked about earning karma.  He is not a vegetarian like strict Hindus are.  He said that when he eats meat, he is buying bad karma.  However, he makes much effort to buy good karma.  Even neutral karma is better than bad karma.  He is a spiritual person and it his eating of meat does not interfere with that for him.  He is at peace with that.  I, on the other hand, dwell on my religious inadequacies.  Ever since, I’ve been thinking a lot about his spiritual views.  Could adopting his view of being honest about my “bad karma,” but focusing the rest of my energy working for the greater good be the answer I have been looking for?  Perhaps.

 After S left, I sat for a few minutes and read the last two pages of a chapter in Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  They blew me away.  The topic wasn’t religion, but government.  Still, it was as if Blue’s father was speaking to me in a code so that no one else would overhear it.  The last sentences blew me away:

Now, Dad answered his own question, his voice low and scratchy in the receiver.

“We are under an invincible blindness as to the true and real nature of things,” he said. (pg 261)

It’s time to take off the blinders that have been put in place by other people and my own misconceptions.  I hope my blindness isn’t truly invincible.

Far From a Calamity

July 31, 2007 at 8:16 pm | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Childhood Memories, Reading, What's Up | 4 Comments

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

I’m about 75 pages in to this book and it is wonderful and engaging.  It’s quite different from anything I’ve read recently and I’m loving it.

#31 ~ Falling Angels

July 6, 2007 at 3:31 pm | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Historical Fiction, Reading, Secrets and Lies | 4 Comments
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Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

This novel is setup in a compelling way. The story is told through the point of view of eleven (+/-) narrators. You have to delve into the agenda of each character in order to determine what really is happening and why Those agendas are prone to change as the character matures or makes life altering decisions. It took no time to get engrossed in the story and I can’t tell you how many times I skimmed through the pages to come in search of the next entry by one narrator or another.

The story revolves around two families roughly in the same socio-economic class, but with Maude’s family slightly higher than Lavinia’s. It is the shared love of the cemetery that brings these young girls together in friendship, much to the chagrin of their mothers. Maude’s mother, Kitty Coleman, is an educated woman who is disappointed in what life has to hold for her has caused her to neglect those in her life who love her. She feels that her life would be so much more had she not been required to get married. Lavinia’s mother, Gertrude Waterhouse, invests all too much of herself in her role as wife and mother. She would be no one if she did not have a husband, child, or house to care for. As time goes on, each mother is secretly grateful for the presence of the other child in their daughter’s life. Lavinia has all the flare and lust for life that Kitty wishes Maude had. Maude is down to earth and more reserved, the way that Gertrude wishes Lavinia was.

As they move toward adolescence, the cemetery is no longer enough to maintain the friendship. In fact, even the reasons why each girl enjoys going there separates them. Lavinia is ecstatic when an aunt passes away because it gives her the opportunity to practice and embrace the societal standards for mourning. Maude has no interest whatsoever in mourning traditions. Her interest in visiting the cemetery is practical. She wants to learn the ins and outs of burial and, most controversially, cremation. Maude becomes weary of Lavinia’s drama and conversely, Lavinia becomes bored with Maude’s practicality. As the girls’ friendship comes to a cross roads, Kitty becomes fully involved in the women’s suffrage movement, pulling the girls and both families in with her. Their involvement in the historic suffrage march in London changes all of their forever.

In the end, I found the build up much more intense and interesting than the conclusion. Still, I enjoyed reading it. Even the most beautiful jigsaw puzzle is far more fun to put together than it is to look at.

#30 ~ The Kite Runner

July 6, 2007 at 1:13 pm | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Childhood Memories, Culture, Reading, Religion, Secrets and Lies | 4 Comments
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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

This book was selected for me and I couldn’t be more thankful. It was a book I’ve seen and picked up many times before. Afghanistan . Do I really want to spend my reading time on a topic that is somewhat hard to avoid IRL? That was what I thought before I started reading about it. Now I’m glad that I was “forced” to read it.

This is the story of a boy, Amir, who doesn’t live up to his father’s expectations and that sense of shame is compounded when he chooses not to step in and save his best friend, Hassan, from a vicious attack – an attack that was precipitated in part by Hassan’s loyalty to him. Although it was Hassan who was hurt, Amir can’t stand the shame he feels when he’s around him. He pushes Hassan and his family away until they leave for good. You can’t escape your past forever or remove guilt and shame. Even after moving to the United States , gaining the love of his father, and marrying it haunts Amir. A call from a trusted mentor offers him a reason to return to his homeland and make amends with his past and peace with his own inadequacies – if only he’s now brave enough to do so.

I’ve decided not to go into too much detail and give Judi some time to read her copy. I would encourage everyone to read this book. You will not regret it.

Middlesex: Has Oprah Been Reading?

June 6, 2007 at 2:00 pm | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Oprah, Sexual Identity | Leave a comment

Oprah has announced the latest book for her book club, and it happens to be Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides, one that I’ve already read and reviewed.  It is an interesting book and I hope that her book club members enjoy it.

#26 ~ Innocent Traitor

June 5, 2007 at 9:11 pm | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Henry VIII, Historical Fiction, Reading, Religion | 3 Comments
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With this book I have reached the summit!

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

As I have made my way through the wives of Henry the 8th, this book seemed the next logical choice. This book deals with the rise and fall of Lady Jane Grey, the woman who rules England as Queen for nine short days between the reign of King Edward and Queen Mary. Alison Weir is a historian as is known for her academic accounts of the English monarchy. Innocent Traitor is Weir’s first attempt at using fiction to fully flesh out historic characters and fill in those things that can never be known. This book was a wonderful reading experience, independent of the fact that I read it while at the beach. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has read The Other Boleyn Girl and/or The Boleyn Inheritance. You will not be disappointed.

Lady Jane Grey was born to Henry the 8th’s niece, Frances. Frances and her husband are selfish people who long only for the good life brought about by being wealthy land owners and members of the royal family. After losing two sons in infancy, Frances is bitter when she bares Jane, a healthy, strapping girl. From the moment Jane’s sex is known, Frances hardens her heart. Jane only becomes valuable to her when Queen Jane gives birth to Prince Edward, her uncle’s sole male heir. Within weeks of her birth, Jane is surrounded by people plotting to use her to their own advantage.

From the very beginning Jane experiences only harshness and displeasure from her mother. Because she is unknowingly being groomed to be a future queen of England, her mother uses a heavy hand with her. Jane, an intelligent and inquisitive child who grows into a sober and scholarly young woman, has a will of her own that her mother cannot break. She is content to spend her life reading in the pursuit of knowledge and righteousness before God. While her parent’s faith changes at the whim of the monarch, Jane grows to become a devout, outspoken, and idealistic Protestant under the tutelage of the doctors chosen specifically by Queen Katherine Parr to teach her. Like many stanch idealists, Jane lacks diplomacy and tact when speaking about faith. Believing that she knows the real truth about God, she refuses to hold her tongue, even in front of Princess Mary, an equally devout and staunch Roman Catholic.

It is the combination of the ultimately ill-fated plotting against the succession of the English monarchy and Jane’s unwavering faith in Protestantism that ultimately bring about her demise.

It was interesting reading this book just after finishing March. Both of the narrators are wholly devout to the cause of their faith. They both loved knowledge and its pursuits about all other pleasures. They both lacked tact and diplomacy, believing that they were proclaiming the will of God to the people of their time. They both were taken about as to how others could not believe the way that they do. Where Captain March was led haphazardly by his shame and fear of damnation, Jane stood defiant and confident in her own salvation without fear of death. Interestingly, it is how they differ that brought about their downfalls.

#16 ~ The Glass Castle

April 18, 2007 at 3:12 am | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Childhood Memories, Culture, Inspiration, LIfe, Memoir, My Life with Books, Secrets and Lies | 1 Comment
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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls, her brother, and her two sisters grew up with an alcoholic father and a mother who resented any part of the responsibility that goes hand in hand with parenting. Her memoir is a beautiful testiment to the resilience of the human heart and soul. As depressing as the details were about her experiences with poverty, squaller, and absolute hunger could be, I couldn’t think of a better book to read. It made me happy that I had loving parents who enjoyed their children and worked hard to provide for us. It made me happy to be human, like each and every member of Jeannette’s family. Most of all, it made me happy that Jeannette was willing to share her story. In light of recent events at Virginia Tech, it is a relief to know that an underpriviledged childhood full of empty promises and hardship does not have to end in violence.

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